What We Do in the Shadows


A flat portrait.

A flat portrait.

(2014) Horror Comedy (Unison/Paladin) Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stuart Rutherford, Ben Fransham, Rhys Darby, Jackie van Beek, Elena Stejko, Jason Hoyle, Karen O’Leary, Mike Minogue, Chelsie Preston Crayford, Ian Harcourt, Ethel Robinson, Brad Harding, Isaac Heron, Yvette Parsons, Madeleine Sami, Kura Forrester. Directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement

When you get a bunch of people together to live in a single flat, usually it’s for economic reasons – after all, shared costs are less. When you do though, it is imperative that you try to find people with shared interests and common backgrounds. Without something to hold the group together, harmony disappears and you get chaos and anarchy.

In an unassuming suburban flat near Wellington, New Zealand live four gents who tried to head off conflict by gathering because of one common characteristic – all four of them are vampires. When a documentary crew arranges to follow them about and try to get an idea of their daily routines (all of them wearing a crucifix for safety), we are given an insight to just how ordinary the undead truly are.

That’s the premise for this hilarious comedy from the guys behind the cult HBO comedy Flight of the Conchords. Jemaine Clement plays Vladislav, a 16th century despot with a penchant for torture whose confidence was shattered after the humiliating defeat at the hands of his arch-nemesis known only as The Beast. Taika Waititi (both of whom co-wrote and co-directed) plays Viago, an 18th century dandy who pines for the human woman who got away and conducts flat meetings on the chores chart.

Brugh is Deacon, a 19th century aristocrat who finds that doing dishes is beneath his status as a vampire and has let them pile up over five years. Finally, Fransham is Peter, who is 8,000 years old and really doesn’t say much of anything. The four of them are doing their best to remain inconspicuous and blend in, particularly when they go out looking for victims to feed on.

One of them, Nick (Gonzalez-Macuer) is accidentally changed into a vampire. He’s pretty delighted by it, telling all and sundry that he’s a vampire, much to the consternation of Deacon, Vladimir and Viago (Peter doesn’t really say much of anything). However, he does bring into the group Stu (Rutherford), a computer programmer who is a cool guy who gets accepted into the group more than Nick himself. Also hanging around is Jackie (van Beek), a familiar who runs most of their errands during daylight (they have quite a spectacular reaction to it) and does their bloody laundry in the hopes of someday getting eternal life for herself, although she feels her biological clock ticking – as in she’s in her mid-30s and doesn’t want to spend eternity as a middle aged woman. All of this is leading up to the biggest social event of the year for vampires witches and zombies – the Unholy Masquerade but this year’s event has put the house into a quandary. This year, the Guest of Honor at the ball is none other than The Beast.

This mockumentary is absolutely laugh-out-loud funny in a lot of places and you don’t necessarily have to be a vampire movie fan to get the jokes, like when the dim-witted police officers come to the home to investigate neighborhood complaints of smoke coming out of the windows and shrieking, and end up lecturing them on the lack of smoke alarms in the house.

Of course, it DOES help if you know at least a little bit about vampire lore but most of it you can figure out. Some of the funniest sequences involve a run in with the flatmates of a pack of werewolves whose canine scent is offensive to the bloodsuckers. When Viago sneers “Why don’t you sniff your own crotches” to the pack, one of them shamefacedly says “We don’t smell our own crotches; we smell each other’s. It’s a form of greeting.”

The tropes here are classic vampire, which is a good thing because I think most horror fans appreciate it more – the Twilight series is pretty much left out of it as are most of the Young Adult vampire mythologies, as well as modern stuff like the Buffyverse and the kind of Gothic vampire works of Anne Rice. No, this is more or less Bram Stoker and Hammer horror on display which to me anyway is a very good thing.

Most horror spoofs are godawful at best but this doesn’t fall into that category and Clement and Waititi both carefully avoid falling into that trap. Most of the humor comes from the ridiculousness of the everyday situations the flatmates find themselves in. While some of the sequences work better than others and the humor can be a bit dry, overall it works extremely well. The effects are nifty enough for a micro-budgeted indie which means not a lot of CGI and more practical effects, which also makes a case for those who prefer their horror more of the throwback variety. While it must be cautioned that those with weak stomachs for gore might find some of the scenes here pretty bloody, this is definitely tonic for a time of year when most of the cinematic offerings are particularly cringeworthy.

REASONS TO GO: Really funny in places and never descends into spoof. Classic vampire stuff.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags in places and a bit droll throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of foul language, plenty of blood, some unsettling images and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The hill where the vampires have a run-in with the werewolves was also used in the filming of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Vampires
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Lazarus Effect

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Shadow of the Vampire


Dinner is served.

Dinner is served.

(2000) Horror (Lionsgate) John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Cary Elwes, Catherine McCormack, Eddie Izzard, Aden Gillett, Nicholas Elliott, Ronan Vibert, Sophie Langevin, Myriam Muller, Milos Hlavak, Marja-Leener Junker, Derek Kueter, Norman Golightly, Patrick Hastert, Sacha Ley, Ingeborga Dapkunaite. Directed by E. Elias Merhige

 

Since we cringed in caves at the dawn of time, we have been scared of the dark. The dark hides the things we can’t see; our imagination makes those things hideous. The noise of wind rustling through the trees becomes a stranger, with a knife, creeping through the grass. Fear has always been more a product of our imagination more than anything else.

That fear was never better crystallized than in the masterwork novel of Bram Stoker, Dracula. It captured the imagination of millions from the time it was published even up to this 21st century and most likely beyond. Stoker made the monsters of our imagination real, demons in the dark made flesh. That’s a dangerous thing in and of its own self.

Filmmaker F.W. Murnau (Malkovich) was fascinated by the novel, and yearned to film it. He was denied permission by the Stoker estate, but was determined to make the ultimate horror movie anyway. ¬†Murnau recognized that realism would make his horror all the more effective. To that end, he hired an unusual actor by the name of Max Schreck (which, translated from German, means “shriek”) to play his Count Orlock, the Dracula of his film. Schreck (Dafoe) is a strange sort who demands that he be addressed as Orlock, and is in character (and the accompanying creepy-looking costume) at all times. Most of the cast and crew assign this as the quirks of an actor and think nothing of it.

It appears that Murnau’s vision is being realized. The film, Nosferatu, is turning out to be everything he hoped – one of the classic horror films of all time. Still, things are not quite right. His cinematographer (Gillett) has taken mysteriously ill and is near death. Murnau must shut down the production to procure a new one. While he is gone, mysterious deaths haunt the production.

When Murnau returns with his drug-addled replacement (Elwes), it soon becomes apparent that the terrifying Schreck is much more than he seems. And he has an unhealthy obsession with the movies leading lady (McCormick, Mel Gibson’s wife in Braveheart). You see, Schreck is not some Stanislavsky disciple taking the method to extremes; he actually IS undead.

What a fascinating and terrific idea for a movie this is. Nosferatu remains one of the most brilliant and terrifying movies ever made, and the mystery surrounding the real Max Schreck makes for some interesting speculation. “Max Schreck” was almost certainly a stage name; nobody knows for sure who he really was. Heck, for all we know he could have been a vampire.

Screenwriter Steven Katz was inspired by the original film, and includes many little touches that ring true; the decadence of jazz age Berlin; the solitude and creepiness of the castle exteriors. He even adds the little factoid that Murnau’s crew shot their movies while wearing lab coats and goggles, giving the proceedings a pseudo-scientific air.

Director Elias Merhige (Begotten) has assembled an impressive cast, including one-time Warhol associate Udo Kier as a producer. Dafoe gives an Oscar-worthy performance (and in fact he was nominated) as the sinister Schreck, an ancient creature who has grown too old, watching a century he does not understand encroach into the only world he has ever known. It is strangely affecting.

The problem here is that Merhige often sacrifices his story for the sake of atmosphere and art. He is successful at creating a genuinely creepy vibe, using old-time film effects and title cards to enhance the mood and set the period. As a result, the look of the film holds up next to the original, a not-inconsiderable task in itself.

But an overly long opening credits sequence put my jaw on edge from the beginning, not the way you want your audience to go into a movie like this. I found the pacing overall to be a bit slow. The film’s climax is also a bit off-putting.

That said, this is a genuine creep-out that will stand your hair on end in various places. Dafoe’s performance by itself is commendable. It’s funny, sad and terrifying all at once. Shadow of the Vampire wisely uses the best monster of all – our imaginations and our fear of the dark – to its advantage.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing performance by Dafoe. Brilliant concept. Creepily atmospheric.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Style over substance. Overly long opening titles sequence.

FAMILY MATTERS: Lots of horrific images, some drug use and sexuality, a bit of violence and bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The producers of Spider-Man hired Dafoe to be their Green Goblin based on his performance here.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a make-up montage that shows the process of actor Willem Dafoe going from human to Nosferatu in a matter of minutes.

BOX OFFICE PERFORANCE: $11.2M on an $8M production budget; the film was shy of recouping its production costs during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scream 3

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Internship